ITL #396 The covid-19 pandemic: virtual space and communication1 year, 9 months ago
Under-served communities in developing countries must not miss out on the digital infrastructure needed to harness communication opportunities in virtual spaces. By Esther Cobbah.
Covid-19 has severely disrupted ways of life and work worldwide. Much day to day human interface, whether in economic activities, religious life, entertainment, education or sheer social engagement, has been affected, especially at the height of lockdowns.
Public health requirements of social distancing have led to companies shutting down offices, with staff working remotely, even as the companies make rapid adaptations for their survival. Familiar office spaces for staff interaction have been replaced by experiences of interacting in virtual space, placing new demands on organizations and individuals. Modes of interaction with customers, clients and stakeholders, generally, are also changing.
A good appreciation of this now crucial and ever growing reality of virtual space will unveil the opportunities to be leveraged for the benefit of individual livelihoods, communities, nations and humanity at large. Communication is vital to harnessing these new opportunities.
Adapting to communicating in virtual space across different locations, rather than face-to-face in the same physical venue, has not been simple. Working from home has been complicated for many because, normally, the workplace is separate from home.
Thus, employees of corporates – especially women – with children, who are also not attending school because of the pandemic, find their ability to participate effectively in virtual meetings somewhat challenged. Communication through the virtual space can also be distorted by the fact that the space from which “the other” is communicating is not the familiar office environment. The clutter in the virtual space becomes a barrier to communication effectiveness.
Having been so used to direct inter-personal communication, adjusting – practically as well as psychologically – to the new realities brought about by the global pandemic has not been straightforward. Shops, small businesses, sporting events, religious gatherings, educational institutions are not easily switched into operating in the virtual space. It is striking to observe throughout the world the reactions to lockdown and the pressures to resume the old normal. For most of the world’s population, it appears, recourse to the virtual space is no more than a temporary inconvenience to be abandoned as soon as the pandemic begins to recede.
In developing countries, particularly in Africa, even access to the virtual space is severely limited by the unavailability of the requisite technology for most people. Recourse to digital technology is also constrained by lack of access to electricity and lack of requisite skills. If the enormous potential of the virtual space is to be tapped, serious challenges need to be overcome.
The covid-19 situation is providing a period of introspection and reflection so as to create resilient strategies for the future. Limits on numbers at physical gatherings for social events such as weddings, funerals and celebratory events, for instance, are leading to virtual participation in such events, with advantages in cost reduction and convenience increasingly recognized.
The virtual space may, in interesting ways, offer companies greater reach for corporate-wide interaction and inter-departmental collaboration than might typically occur in the physical office space context. The whole organization may be assembled in a virtual meeting, which would not be feasible physically. Reassuring visibility and communication from the CEO to the whole organization in this crisis period is made possible.
Productivity improvements and cost savings may also accrue from such virtual communication, warranting investments being made to improve the technology infrastructure for the virtual space to be even more widely used. The potential of using the virtual space to gain extensive market reach, even for small businesses, is gaining attention.
Crises heighten appreciation of the value of communication. The extended crisis period of the pandemic offers the communication function in government agencies, corporate organizations, as well as international organizations, the opportunity to draw the attention of leadership to the imperative of strategic communication about issues arising. Communities and even families and other social groups see the need to come up with new ways of communicating necessitated by the crisis situation.
The virtual space also presents opportunities for development communication globally. Perspectives from communities and nations can be shared on common virtual platforms as part of developing strategies for a post Covid-19 resurgence.
Comprehensive communication approaches
Covid-19 has accelerated recourse to the virtual space for social interaction and communication. National leaders have been communicating measures their Governments are taking through broadcasts over the airwaves. However, after announcements of lockdowns, there has been, around the world, including in the United States, defiance of, and disregard for, announced health guidelines.
It is apparent that more comprehensive communication approaches, with attention to the language of communication and consideration for behaviour change as well as advocacy and social mobilization, among other things, have been required to complement the one-way, top-down information dissemination from leaders.
Communities ought to be mobilized and communication, taking advantage of the virtual space, has a critical role. Understanding the virtual space will enable governmental agencies putting out information about the pandemic and publicizing public health guidelines to structure such information appropriately for optimal impact.
A joint statement issued on 23rd September 2020 by the World Health Organization (WHO) and a number of other international organizations recognized that “technology and social media are being used on a massive scale to keep people safe, informed, productive and connected.” The statement went on to acknowledge the misuse of the virtual space to disseminate falsehood and hate and urged Member States to “engage and listen to their communities as they develop their national action plans, and to empower communities to develop solutions and resilience against mis- and disinformation.”
In the context of developing countries, particularly, there is an urgent need for extensive communication about the virtual space itself so as to enable a better appreciation of how the space works, ensuring access by all. For rural and poor communities to be effectively incorporated into the virtual space, the reach of FM radio stations and the explosive growth of mobile telephony are available building blocks for the required communication.
Significantly, the virtual space can also facilitate access to public goods and services, including healthcare, as well as access to markets for agricultural production, for instance. As governments and the international community prioritize expanding digital infrastructure and bridging the digital divide, the needs of under-served populations in respect of the virtual space and the opportunity for effectively addressing the development needs with urgency must not be missed!
The ability of billions of people throughout the world to communicate across the virtual space and reach out to seek and share relevant and valuable information, as well as access livelihood enhancement opportunities, would thus become a positive, lasting legacy of the covid-19 pandemic. Communication would be the enabler of this legacy.
Esther Cobbah is founder and Chief Executive Officer of Strategic Communications Africa Ltd (Stratcomm Africa), a communication and reputation management agency based in Ghana which has served over 150 local and international clients. Esther also sits on the Board of the International Public Relations Association (IPRA).mail the author
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